The best books on the best places you have never been to

The Books I Picked & Why

The Way To Shambhala

By Edwin Bernbaum

Book cover of The Way To Shambhala

Why this book?

It is eminently possible that author James Hilton modelled his Shangri-La hideaway on the Tibetan realm of Shambhala. The two fabled realms share a lot in common. There are several Tibetan versions of the legend of Shambhala, but they run in the same pattern. Somewhere to the north of India is a kingdom ringed by impenetrable snowcapped mountains. In this sanctuary, poverty, hunger, crime, and sickness are unknown, and people live a hundred years. In the city of Kalapa, there is a glittering palace where sacred teachings are kept.

In a future several hundred years from now, the world will erupt in chaotic warfare. When the last barbarian thinks he has conquered the world, the king of Shambhala will ride forth and destroy the forces of evil—and establish a new Golden Age. The legend first appeared in India and later travelled to Tibet. Tibetan guidebooks written In centuries past pointed the way to Shambhala, but were short on practical details and long on talk of obstacles on the epic journey. Edwin Bernbaum provides an English guide of sorts. The best explanation is that you can find Shambhala in your dreams: some Tibetans claim Shambhala can only be accessed in another (hidden) dimension.

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By Thomas More

Book cover of Utopia

Why this book?

Utopia was first published in Latin in London (UK) in 1516. This slim tome has stood the test of time—after 500 years, it is still in print. The book depicts a fictional idyllic island society and its religious, social, and political customs. Many aspects of More's description of Utopia are reminiscent of life in monasteries. Whether intended as a socio-political satire or not, the book weathered all storms, but More himself did not. He was at loggerheads with Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church, and was executed for treason in London in 1535. The first English translation of Utopia appeared in 1551.

Utopia derives from two Greek words, meaning ‘No Place’. So you will not find it on any map. However, as Oscar Wilde explains: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

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The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed

By Gavin Menzies

Book cover of The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History's Greatest Mystery Revealed

Why this book?

Atlantis is another fabled island-nation, with a history that goes back much further in time than Utopia. The powerful island-nation is mentioned by Greek philosopher Plato as an antagonist to mighty Athens. There are a handful of theories about whether Atlantis ever existed (some claim Plato made it all up). If it did exist, what was the location before it sank below the waves?

Gavin Menzies takes up one of the real location theories in this fascinating book: that Atlantis was part of the advanced Minoan civilisation that extended from its Mediterranean base on Crete to locations much further afield. Since this all took place three millenniums ago, hard to prove anything, although Gavin Menzies tries his best with unearthed artifacts and DNA evidence to persuade the reader as to the veracity of his findings. Perhaps you should read this tale with a pinch of salt? It is about a fabled island that disappeared into the ocean, after all.

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The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World

By Luciano Canfora, Martin Ryle

Book cover of The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World

Why this book?

The Ptolemaic kings of Egypt had a staggering ambition: to house all the books ever written under one roof, in the city of Alexandria. Parchments collected regardless of what the content of the books was, or which language the parchments were inscribed in. It was much more than a library: it was the world’s foremost research and scholarly institute at the time (around 2000 years ago) and was famed for its ground-breaking discoveries in fields of mathematics, the sciences, and many other forms of knowledge. But then the library burned down—and the fate of all those precious books has been a subject of much speculation.

The author, Professor Canfora, plays hard and fast with the facts—but then the ‘facts’ are scarce and murky. The book was published in 1990 and thus misses a very important chapter: in 2002, a fantastic modern Library of Alexandria was resurrected as a wonderful circular glass-covered building. However,  current Egyptian government politics is not nearly as generous in its approach to the acquisition of knowledge: the collection of books is censored to suit.

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Persepolis: The History and Legacy of the Ancient Persian Empire's Capital City

By Charles River Editors

Book cover of Persepolis: The History and Legacy of the Ancient Persian Empire's Capital City

Why this book?

The city of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great, or at least named in his honour. And Alexander the Great is responsible for wiping out other fabled cities. Most notably, the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, located in modern-day Iran. Finally, a place you can actually visit! But the massive palace lies in ruins, nowhere near its original splendour with all the statuary and furnishings, and the pomp and majesty of Persia’s kings and courtiers—at the time when Persia was a global superpower.

Around 2,000 years ago, Alexander the Great’s troops looted Persepolis and burned it to the ground. And there it lay in the sand, forgotten, until the site was revived in the 1930s and somewhat restored. The site lies in southwest Iran and was inscribed to the World Heritage List in 1979.  Given that travel to Iran today is fraught with obstacles, this book about Persepolis could still be left in the domain of armchair reading.

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